It wasn’t the usual New Jersey League of Municipalities luncheon yesterday, with broad speeches and routine rhetoric, as this year’s annual meeting instead brought emotion and some potential momentum.
Outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine gave what may be one of his final major speeches before leaving office in January.
Governor-elect Chris Christie pledged to shake up Trenton and local governments in his first prominent speech after winning the election on Nov. 4.
Pointing to the cynicism and impatience that voters have for all levels of New Jersey government, and the economic fears that he heard from residents while on the campaign trail, Christie made clear what he will expect from local officials throughout the state and what they can expect from him if they are not up to task of facing the state’s challenges. He urged them to “move to the center of the room” to work on difficult issues and help repair the state.
“I promised you during this campaign that we were going to approach this from a very, very different way,” Christie said before hundreds of municipal leaders and local officials. “For those of you who thought that that was just campaign rhetoric and that it probably wouldn’t apply to you, then if you’re going to be surprised by anything I say to you today, don’t be surprised by that because that’s exactly what’s coming at you over the next year.”
“There are going to be hard decisions that are going to be made and I’m going to use every tool at my disposal to force change. I’m not here to wait one or two or four or eight years for change to come,” he said. “Change is going to come and it’s going to come down. If you want to participate, then we welcome you to the center of the room, and if you don’t, we’ll come in the back corner to drag you out, but one way or another change is coming. Change is coming.”
That announcement came with some murmurs from the crowd, but many immediately stood to applaud Christie’s strong words. It wasn’t all scolding — Christie included a few jokes in his speech and a story about rock star Jon Bon Jovi.
The Republican governor-elect addressed the issue of working with a Democratic-led legislature, and said there will be the inevitable fights over difficult issues but that the state must face its challenges. Christie’s transition team projects the deficit for fiscal 2011 to be above the $8 billion calculation from the Office of Legislative Services. New Jersey also has some of the highest property taxes in the U.S.
“Fiscal responsibility in New Jersey can no longer wait,” Christie said. “We have to get to work now.”
Many believe the state’s high property taxes stem from its numerous local governments, municipalities, and school districts. Consolidating such entities could eliminate costs and redundancies of government. Corzine stressed this issue and the need to merge local governments to reduce expenditures at the state and municipal level.
“I believe that if we are to ultimately control the cost of government — state government, local government, our educational system — we are going to have to deal with the issue of shared services,” Corzine said.
Corzine also pointed to the state’s unfunded pension and other post-employment benefit liabilities and its heavy debt load. New Jersey has roughly $32 billion of outstanding bonds and nearly 10% of the fiscal budget goes towards paying down debt service.
The outgoing governor thanked the audience of municipal leaders, his various cabinet members, and others for their help over the past four years. Like Christie, he received standing ovations from the crowd. At the very end of his address, Corzine’s throat closed up and his face reddened as he fought off tears while expressing his gratitude for his tenure in public office. After leaving Goldman, Sachs & Co. in 1999, he served from 2001 to 2005 as a U.S. senator from New Jersey.
“I say this from the bottom of my heart, serving the people of this great state as your U.S. senator, as the governor, has been the highest honor of my life,” Corzine said.
Still, the running of government continues. In looking at the administration’s plans fiscal plans before the new governor takes office on Jan. 19, Treasurer David Rousseau said the state anticipates issuing general obligation debt to help address cash-flow issues and reimburse the general fund for advances that it made for capital projects. In addition, officials will continue to monitor revenue collections.
Rousseau declined to give the size of any additional borrowing.
“We have to manage the next two months of this budget,” he said in an interview with The Bond Buyer. “The governor has said that he wants to leave the incoming governor with a balanced budget. We probably will have some bond deals that will be out there so we will have to do disclosure. We’ll have to outline the extent of our revenue shortfall and plans to close that. That’s what I’ve been working on and I’ll continue to work on for the next couple of weeks.”